Mystery at Cambridge

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This second novel by Alex Michaelides is mainly set at Cambridge where the murder of a student has occurred. But before we can get to that – and, to me, the real beginning of the plot – we must slog through the details of the viewpoint character's past and present. In The Maidens, Mariana Andros, a group psychotherapist, is suffering through her initial months as a widow. The loss of her husband at an early age exerts a pall over her life and her actions. We see Mariana attempt to continue to function as an effective psychologist, but nothing she says or does seems astute or professional. One of the male members of her group is following her around, and she does nothing to stop his behavior and therefore help him, psychologically. There is no evidence of competence here.

So blame all that on the effect of her husband's recent death. Mariana's life is upended by a frantic call for help from her niece Zoe. Thus starts the problem/mystery of the novel. Zoe's close friend at Cambridge is missing and Zoe fears she is dead. Zoe's right. Mariana wiggles her way into the police investigation and is present when other murders of female Cambridge students are discovered. Is she more astute at this point and able to aid the investigation? No. Still in a fog. Admittedly, the author's excellent depiction of the shadowy, gloomy setting makes the reader feel this murkiness as well.

There is enough suspense to keep us reading to find out “who done it,” but unfortunately little satisfying characterization. The “maidens” are a secret group of beautiful females which star professor Edward Fosca has assembled. But their personalities are stereotypical, and Michaelides' use of the Demeter/Persephone mythology is a thin layer apparently intended to structure and inform the narrative. It doesn't.

Many reviewers write excitedly of their surprise at the ending, and indeed the plot is so full of potential suspects that we nearly fail to keep them all straight. Attempting to work out the clues, as Mariana does, poorly, keeps readers compelled to finish the novel.

This story in itself may be a Greek tragedy in which Mariana must lose everything – her husband, her practice, her identity, her family members, her ignorance – so that she might reach agnagnosis and finally recognize her real self and place in life.

I received a copy of The Maidens from Macmillan and Bookishfirst in exchange for an honest review.